This season we’re going back to our roots in California’s wine country, where the first Williams-Sonoma store was opened. Along the way we’ll be spotlighting the local chefs, artisans and producers who have made the region a top culinary destination and continue to inspire us, in the kitchen and around the table.
Within walking distance of chef Thomas Keller’s renowned Yountville restaurants–The French Laundry, Ad Hoc, Bouchon Bistro and Bouchon Bakery–is a beautiful 3-acre garden that supplies each restaurant with its daily fruits and vegetables. Culinary gardener Aaron Keefer manages the garden and collaborates on a daily basis with each culinary team to create unforgettable dining experiences using the freshest possible organic produce.
How did you become the culinary gardener for The French Laundry?
Both my grandfathers were farmers. One grew corn, wheat, and soy, and the other had a berry farm growing strawberries and raspberries. I went into the kitchen when I was in high school and eventually went to the CIA for my culinary degree. I worked as a chef for years before I came full circle and started farming.
What is your gardening/cooking philosophy? I believe vegetables are like fish. You have to eat them soon after catching them. I think that flavor starts even before you source the seeds. The composition of the soil, the seed genetics, the environment where the product is grown—these all come together to bring you the flavor of that vegetable. Simply put, fresher is better.
What is the relationship between the garden and The French Laundry chefs/kitchen? Does the kitchen use everything that is grown? Are vegetables grown specifically for use, or for certain dishes?
Everyday I provide a product-availability list of up to 200 items to the chefs. At the end of a long night of cooking, the chefs scrub down the kitchen and craft the menu for the next day. They share ideas back and forth and use what’s on the availability list to inspire their dishes. I work closely with the chefs to offer them the varieties, sizes, and amounts they need. In the morning, I come in and while the weather is still cool, I harvest the produce at its peak so that everything the chefs asked for is ready and waiting for them when they come in. Everything we grow is used by one of the restaurants and the bakery.
What is growing in the garden right now, and how will it be used?
I have 8 different types of melons, 60 varieties of tomatoes, 5 different types of beets, 6 different types of cucumbers, scorzonara (a root vegetable similar to salsify), ficoide glaciale, 6 types of hard squash, 5 types of eggplant, many types of microgreens, and the list goes on. What I love about my job is the ingenuity of the chefs and their ability to constantly evolve and come up with new preparations for what I grow.
What is your favorite growing season?
I have a favorite part of each season. The staggering production and speed of growth of the summer garden, the sweetness of the carrots coming from the winter garden, the bounty of the fall garden, and excitement of the spring garden.
What do the chefs get most excited about in the garden?
I believe the thing they get the most excited about is anything new, whether it is the first strawberry in the spring, the first tomato of summer, or a patch of potatoes that has been harvested after not seeing them for a while.
Do you have your own garden at home? If so, what are your favorite things to grow?
Yes I do, and my favorite things to grow at home are, of course, herbs—they are a high-impact crop for small spaces—and espelette peppers, brandywine tomatoes, fairytale eggplants, and melons. There is nothing like picking a ripe melon for breakfast.